The folklore of America is full of tall tales, fictional people in real places, poems and songs that send a shiver or a thrill, mixtures of fact and fantasy, all born of a restless movement ever westward. One of these folk tales, the legend of John Henry, is the linchpin of Colson Whitehead's epic second novel, "John Henry Days."
The story of John Henry, the steel-driving man, is a mystery in the annals of American folklore. Was he a real person? Did the famous contest between man and machine actually occur? If so, when and where is in doubt. According to legend, John Henry was a black "steel-driver" of extraordinary muscle and stamina who worked for the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad in the 1870s. His job consisted of spiking mountainsides for explosives, moving through the tunnel as it was "cleared" foot by foot, inch by inch.
In that age of oncoming mechanization, John Henry was one day pitted against a steam-powered drill, both of them burrowing into a mountainside in West Virginia. At the end, he beat the machine, having drilled farther, faster, only to drop dead of exhaustion, his hammer still in his hand. Thus a legend grew.
"John Henry Days" transforms the simple ballad that begat this legend into a rich feast of history, fiction and fable, as complex and satisfying as a Bach toccata and fugue. Whitehead's novel winds and turns in time, from 1871 to 1996, switching decades or centuries in the flick of a page. Its language is elegant, colloquial, archaic, protean, shifting in tone with each of the stories it tells. And there is a welter of stories, a vast patchwork design that makes up the multicolored quilt of "John Henry Days." These stories, in the scale of time, are postage stamp-sized; the John Henry commemorative stamp being the engine that moves the plot. Paul Robeson, the Rolling Stones, Hell's Angels and the "original" John Henry all make appearances in this ingeniously plotted story, along with some half a dozen fictional characters who command our immediate attention. In this it resembles E.L. Doctorow's "Ragtime," but its meditations delve deeper.
A multitude of contemporary concerns are put to the forefront in sharp focus: race relations, "going postal," pop music, sexuality, greed, the press, the Internet, public relations, the jungle of cities and the solitude of the wilderness, the need for meaningful activity, the deceptions of love, the elusive "truth" of history: All of these are elements in this amazing sprawl of a novel. It moves like a huge locomotive with many cars toward an ironic finale, the stinging upshot of which is dropped unobtrusively at the end of the first two dozen pages.
Indeed, within the first hundred pages, a cross-section of America is revealed: a view of seismic layers of history and myth; an archeology of our nation's obsessions, dreams and disappointments; the strata of a society on the move toward vistas that seem endlessly optimistic.
The story of J. Sutter, a young black journalist from New York City, is the focal point of the novel. J. is an Everyman, caught in the web of motivations that he perceives as his career. He is apparently headed "somewhere" but spinning his wheels, his destination blurred by his willful self-absorption. He has decided to "go for the record"--a nonstop daily whirl of press junkets and media events for an entire year. He sets himself to top the legendary Bobby Figgis, who had once upon a time "bet another member of the List that he could do an event every day for a year.... Bobby Figgis made it through the first week fine.... After two weeks he grew tired, however. It was the same food night after night, it seemed to him.... [As he] entered the third month of his bet ... [he] had set a record for the longest bout of junketeering anyone could remember.... His wife had stopped speaking to him.... [He] lost weight and did not seem his old self. This was in the sixth month of the bet.... In the ninth month Bobby Figgis attended a video convention.... He walked down the rows of the convention hall to a symphony of electronic beeps, whistles and gunfire ... monsters exploded in vivid pixelated death and were replaced by identical monsters. There was no end to the monsters. They came from within the machine. Bobby's skin felt on fire. Bobby stepped before a strange machine ... put on gloves and stuck his head into a heavy black helmet.... The screen inside the helmet blazed brilliantly into his eyes....
"He did not file the story on the video game convention. He stopped filing stories....He smelled bad.... His wife was long gone.... Soon he attended only the subterranean events that are the fear of all junketeers, events without names, held in places without addresses. He disappeared. He was never seen again. The keeper of the List deleted his name after a time. He had been devoured by pop."
Figgis, a minor character, becomes a metaphorical trope for both J. and John Henry--obsessively driving so deep into his work that, as a person, he disappears. One of the other junketeers, a character named One-Eye, confides to J. that he is determined to remove himself from "the List," to break the cycle of media-thrall in which he finds himself. He enlists J.'s aid to break into the computer files that command "the List."
The web (personified by "the List") that ensnares the junketeers is the same huge net that scoops up those in little towns and big cities, those likely to snap shut or open their hearts, those who may "go postal," those who meet with ironic fates. They are all fodder for a vast maw that crunches facts and fallacy together, swallows and swallows, and excretes, every day, ever hungry, ever unsatisfied.
Expectation and reward are recurring motifs in the book. The journalists must produce words and more words; the researchers must produce a finding, the hobbyist an artifact; the little girl who practices the piano must master "the classics" to fulfill her mother's social ambitions; the blues man Mose must show up sober to make a recording and get paid; John Henry must drive deeper and deeper into the unyielding mountain, hammer in hand, day by day, to collect his pay. Thus Whitehead drives deeper and deeper into the mountain of our American Dream, a fetish of production, progress and success.
The multiple plotting of the novel is sometimes disconcerting, but however often the road diverges, one is quickly up to speed again--like changing lanes on a superhighway or like a hobo hopping freights. The direction and energetic flow of the writing holds the reader in its swift trajectory.
There is more than one love story here, and a century of tales is told as if viewed through a kaleidoscope, one story melding into another. Pamela, a young black woman whose father obsessively collected John Henry memorabilia, is at the John Henry Days Celebration to sell the collection to the town museum. She meets up with J. and they are drawn to each other. As their love deepens, the shadow of John Henry looms ever larger and likewise her distrust of J.'s self-absorption. It reminds her of how her father's single-minded hobby ate away at their family and finally consumed him. J.'s story is the one we mainly follow. He is the creature of the story; the fish caught in the net of history, the fabled swineherd on his quest--rooting for receipts, rewards, his next solid meal.
"John Henry Days" is a novel that aims for greatness, aims for empathy on every level and succeeds more often than not. As one of the cameo characters, Guy Johnson, a black scholar and researcher, meditates: "This is the method of gathering folklore, accumulating, sifting, tracking with ineffectual magnifying glass the footprints of ghosts. But he had not reckoned on the variety and plenitude of the accounts. No, he had not foreseen the true extent of his adventure at all ... 'The Ballad of John Henry' has picked up freight from every work camp, wharf and saloon in this land; its route is wherever men work and live, and now its cars brim with what the men have hoisted aboard, their passions and dreams. Whole crates full of names, the names of women they have loved, and the towns in which they have toiled."
This powerfully composed novel is likely to have a long and praiseworthy life, not unlike the legend from which it springs. And certainly no single review or reading can reckon its "variety and plenitude."